Plants To Dye For

Posted 6th Apr, 2015 in On Our Mind
by Robin Kelson
Main post article

Over the winter we've been exploring the world of natural dyes. Turns out MANY plants around the globe have useful properties for cloth dying and even for food coloring. All different parts of plants are useful. Sometimes it's the root, sometimes the flower or the leaf. Othertimes, the seed, pollen or even the fruit skin might be the dye agent. Add different mordants (setting agents) and you can get different colors from the same dye resource! Humans love color and every culture has added to the information we have today about dye plants.

Herb plants and trees are often the first thing people think of when it comes to useful dye plants. There are great dye resources in the vegetable garden too. Below is a short list (there are plenty more) with good dye resources you might already have in your garden or plan to plant this spring. If you're still planning your garden, consider planting one or more of these great color resources and having some fun with color this season. That's what we are going to do!

We've included some tips and information on dyeing below, along with one simple approach for getting started with natural dyes. There is a universe of helpful experts out there as well. Check them out! We've included a few we like, both on the internet and in print, on the Resources page of our Good Seed Company website. Here's the link: GSC Resources-"How To's"

And, of course, the Good Seed Company sells seeds for many of these useful dye plants. You can buy them here: Good Seed Company Shop

Happy planting!


Useful Mordants and Modifiers Likely Hanging Around Your House

  • alum
  • lemon juice or vinegar
  • copper (pennies)
  • iron (rusty nails)
  • cream of tartar
  • baking soda
  • salt
  • rhubarb leaf (the part you don't eat because it's poisonous)

Plant Prep Considerations

  • Always use fresh (not dried) ripe mature plant material
  • If you are not ready to dye and the plant is ready to harvest, harvest the dye plant part, chip it up and freeze it. Remember to label it!
  • Maximize the surface area of your material by chopping it up fine. Whack away at roots with a hammer if necessary


  • Start with simple items while you get to know your plant materials. Handkerchiefs, pillow cases, towels, curtain panels, t-shirts, and undies are easy to work with. Use only natural fibers (cotton, wool, linen, silk). Different fabrics will take up dye differently. For wool, start with test quantities before working with a whole skein.

  • What you'll need: your fabric, your dye material, some protective plastic,newspaper, 5-gallon plastic bucket, non-reactive pot (stainless steel or glass), stirring implement (spoon, paddle or stick).

Prep the fabric:

  • Wash the cloth and wring it out; don't dry it.
  • Make your mordant, which helps the fabric take up the dye. Here are two simple ones: For berries use salt (1/2 cup per 8 cups cold water); for anything else use vinegar (1 part white vinegar/4 parts cold water)
  • Soak fabric in solution for one hour, then rinse with cool water.

Set the stage:

  • Cover your work area with some plastic drop cloth and newspaper on top that. The newspaper can absorb any liquid you might spill, and the plastic will protect the surface top.
  • Gloves recommended … dyes color skin too!
  • Use a non-reactive container (e.g., glass or stainless steel), and stirring implement. Best if you can keep these just for dyeing.

The steps below use stove heat to make the dye and introduce it into the yarn. You also can dye using just the sun's radiant rays … solar dyeing! It works pretty much like how you make sun tea - just add time!

Start the dye process:

  • Put your plant material in the pot and add twice as much water.
  • Simmer for at least an hour 'til you get a nice dark color.
  • Put your gloves on now.
  • Strain out the plant material, keeping the liquid. A plastic bucket is good for this step. Return liquid to pot.
  • Add cloth to liquid dye bath. Make sure the cloth soaks up the liquid, pushing it down with your hands, stick, paddle or spoon.
  • Bring to slow boil and let simmer for at least an hour. Stir periodically.
  • Turn off stove. Check your cloth for desired shade. Cloth color will lighten when it dries. Darker shades need more time. Let it sit longer, even overnight for dark hues. You can also just add your fabric to the heated strained solution in the 5-gallon bucket and let it sit there for several hours/overnight to take up the dye.
  • Set the dye by rinsing it in cold water. Some color will run. Hand wash in cold with some salt (that bucket, rinsed, is good for this) to help set the color.
  • Line dry.
  • Ta-Da!

PS: For dyed clothing, best to wash them separately a couple of times before including with other garments. If no dye is leaching out into your wash water after couple of washings you generally are okay to add them to a load.



  • red cabbage-leaf
  • false indigo
  • berries (blue, elder, rasp)
  • purple grapes


  • berries-fruit (huckle, black)
  • basil-leaves
  • oregon grape-fruit
  • red cedar-root


  • st. johns wort-flower
  • red onion-skin
  • hollyhock-flower
  • dandelion-root
  • beet-root
  • rose-fruit
  • chokecherries-fruit
  • gromwell/native stone seed-root


  • berries-fruit (rasp, straw)
  • cherries
  • avocado-skin, pit
  • rose-flower
  • lavender-flower


  • st. johns wort-flower
  • rhubarb-root
  • yellow onion-skin
  • marigolds-flower
  • calendula-flower
  • sage-leaf
  • sunflower-flower
  • coreopsis-flower, stem
  • dandelion-flower
  • paprika-fruit skin
  • tumeric-root (spice)
  • celery-leaf
  • yellow beet-root
  • mallow-seed


  • carrot-root
  • rhubarb-root
  • yellow onion-skin
  • pomegranate-fruit
  • sunflower-flowerhead, root


  • st.johns wort-flower
  • echinacea-flower
  • sorrel-root
  • artichokes-globe
  • spinach-leaf
  • sage-leaf
  • sunflower-flowerhead, root
  • mint-leaf
  • snapdragon-flower
  • nettles-leaf
  • motherwort-leaf
  • larkspur-flower
  • milkweed-flower, leaf
  • tulsi-leaf (antibacterial)
  • black-eyed susan-flower
  • chamomile-flower, leaf
  • mallow-seed


  • st.johns wort-flower
  • echinacea-flower
  • dandelion-root
  • yellow onion-skin
  • oak-bark
  • walnut-husk
  • coffee
  • tea
  • acorn
  • beet-root
  • hollyhock-flower
  • maple-leaf bud
  • oregano-stalk
  • tobacco-leaf


  • red onion-skin
  • acorn
  • sunflower-flower, root


  • birch-bark, root
  • walnut-husk
  • iris-root
  • rusty nails & vinegar (set with alum)
  • meadowsweet-root
  • sumac-leaf
  • sunflower-flower, root

Thanks to Debra Maslowski and DIY Natural for the dye process instructions.

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